U.S. Trade Partners Improving Produce Safety Standards

Five of the countries from which the U.S. receives the lion’s share of its produce imports have taken significant steps to modernize their food safety systems over the past several years, according to a report released in late September by the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

The report, Legal and Regulatory Frameworks Governing the Growing, Packing and Handling of Fresh Produce in Countries Exporting to the U.S., presents a series of case studies examining five of the top 10 U.S. produce trade partners: Canada, Chile, China, Mexico, and Peru. With the volume of produce imported into the U.S. growing substantially, these countries’ produce safety standards make a huge difference in the American market. Those numbers grew from $2 billion worth of vegetables in 1998 to $4.1 billion in 2007 and, for fruit, from $3.9 billion to just over $8.9 billion during the same time period.

Overall, the case studies show substantial progress in standard setting for produce safety, said Albert F. Chambers, the report’s lead author. Monachus Consulting, an agri-food industry-consulting firm based in Canada, prepared the report.

Meeting International Standards

“Our findings are that these countries and their industries have taken steps to modernize their food safety activities and are treating the matter very seriously in an attempt to meet an emerging international standard,” Chambers said.

“China has the most detailed requirements for food exporters,” the report found. “These reflect its high-level commitment to protect the ‘China brand’ by eliminating practices that have tarnished the brand image in global markets.”

“Of course, we’re limited in the information we can find about how well the new standards are working in China,” says Chambers. But there is some evidence. In 2009, Hong Kong officials conducted a test of its export-safety agreement with the mainland by inspecting 470 vehicles transporting vegetables to Hong Kong from China at the border crossing. All shipments were properly documented, and none of the 370 samples tested for pesticide residue yielded “unsatisfactory” results. “Based on that evidence, these initiatives are having an impact,” said Chambers.

In other countries, Chambers also noted efforts within the supply chain to ensure that standards such as those of Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices), CanadaGAP, and others are being implemented at the level of farms, packinghouses, and wholesalers. “These initiatives are well established, and they seem to be widespread in terms of penetration to the supplier community,” he said.

Timely, or Time Will Tell?

“This report is very timely,” said Purnendu Vasavada, PhD, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “We have a big local food movement, but we also need a lot of produce imports.” He noted that past incidents, such as the outbreak of intestinal illnesses caused by contaminated Guatemalan raspberries in the late 1990s, underscore the importance of an international move to improved produce safety standards.

But Michael Doyle, PhD, regent’s professor of food microbiology and director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia in Griffin, thinks that only time will tell if the on-paper commitment to higher standards in these countries is matched by real-world efforts. “What you put on paper is not always what’s implemented,” he said. “I won’t name any countries specifically, but we’ve had experiences in the past where the rules and regulations don’t match the practices.”

He notes that even in the U.S., we still have a long way to go to ensure the safety of fresh produce. “We’ve had GAPs in place for many years, but it’s still apparent that we need to do more,” he said. “Prevention of contamination is going to be the key, and what can be done by other countries internally in that regard would definitely be beneficial. But the paper and the practical sometimes don’t coincide, so while this report shows steps in the right direction, we’ll have to see how effective the measures in these countries are at actually reducing contamination.”

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